This is based on a true story. Names have been changed and some details added or amended for narrative effect.
Friday 31 May 1968
Alec, a young reporter, sat idly in the newsroom with his stream of consciousness focussing briefly and aimlessly on one pressing topic after another: Sometimes his thoughts turned to the turmoil that the long-running Vietnam War was bringing home to the United States and, indirectly, to Europe. Anti-war protests, mainly by students, had been going on intermittently for years In America. The protesters’ sentiments had been set to music by Bob Dylan, Alec’s favourite, and transferred to Europe. Paris was seething with its own student riots against the government of Charles de Gaulle. London had not fully recovered from a mass demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square a couple of months earlier.
Vanessa Redgrave, Tariq Ali, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Rudi Dutschke were the names in every newspaper and on every young person’s lips.
But these dramatic events seemed to be passing Middlesbrough by. More immediately pressing questions for Alec were which pub he should go to that evening. What assignment would the news desk give him for that afternoon? Was it time to leave the Gazette and try for a job on one of the nationals?
For Wally on the news desk the immediate problem on a quiet day like this was to find a good local picture story for tomorrow’s paper. After drawing an unusual blank with all of his specialist reporters – industrial, municipal, education, health, crime and courts – he turned to his news source of last resort.
Wally was a conventional middle-aged man, conservative but not inhibited, sociable but not extravert. He was also very methodical and fore-sighted. Every evening before going home to his wife and two children in one of the town’s more respectable suburbs he would take a pair of scissors, cut out from that day’s paper any stories that might merit a follow-up in a year’s time and carefully file it away, supplementing the news desk diary.
Now, as a last resort on a quiet news day, Wally opened his file. His face paled, he glanced quickly at his watch, looked around the newsroom and his almost panicky gaze fell upon Alec and then immediately on Mike, a seasoned and slightly cynical photographer in his 40’s.
“Alec, Mike. Get your skates on and get down to the station,” he shouted with unaccustomed brusqueness. “What’s up?” asked Alec, already obediently pulling on his coat. “I’ve nearly forgotten the fucking pilgrimage to Lourdes.” Alec knew this was serious; he’d never heard Wally swear before.
Middlesbrough had a large Roman Catholic population with its roots in Irish immigrant labour dating from Industrial Revolution times; there’s an RC bishop and a cathedral. There is also a tradition dating back to the 1950s of sending an annual diocesan pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in the French Pyrenees. Covering the pilgrimage was a traditional part of the Gazette’s service to its Catholic readers.
Fifteen minutes after receiving their unusually fraught instructions from Wally, Alec and Mike arrived at Middlesbrough station. “Oh no! Too late,” Alec thought, as he watched the London train pull away from the platform on the first stage of the pilgrims’ journey. But he had reckoned without Mike’s determination and ingenuity.
Walking away from the platform after seeing the pilgrims off was a solitary, elderly nun. Mike approached her: “We’re from the Gazette. Sorry we’re late. Would you mind just standing here and raising your hand as if you were waving them off so I can get a pic.”
“Oh! I couldn’t do that.”
“It would be dishonest.”
“Who’s going to know?”
The nun placed her palms piously together and raised her eyes heavenward.
“Why? He doesn’t read the Gazette, does he?”
Later, back in the news room, in the absence of a pic or anything more than a brief report, without pilgrim quotes, to show for their tardy efforts, Wally filed the previous year’s cutting meticulously away for another 12 months and made a mental note not to be so lax again. Alec went back to his reveries and wondered when his next chance would come to share the front page with the Vietnam War.
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